Update Philosophies

I was driving yesterday and started ruminating on some of the issues I’ve had with my high tech EV. It’s a 2017 Chevy Bolt.

I probably wouldn’t be considered an early adopter since Tesla had several models out, the Nissan Leaf had been around for a couple of years and even Chevy had the Spark.

The Tesla Model 3 was still a couple of years away and that was one of the prime reasons I opted for the Bolt. The Bolt had the longest range of any EV at the time and driving it took me back to my 3 series BMW: Great handling, quick acceleration and a blast to drive.

I could go on at length about all of the issues with chargers (both fast and slow) and range, but I really wanted to talk about how the philosophies of software updates differ between the auto industry and the computer industry.

I’m going to limit my discussion to Chevy because I don’t own a Nissan Leaf, BMW 3i or Kia Niro and haven’t talked to anyone who does to find out more about their approaches.

I’m a software developer and own several computers: A Mac Mini, multiple Windows PCs, and a PC running Linux. I also have and iPad and have (had) several Android devices. The Mac Mini is almost 8 years old, but is running the most recent version of MacOS (Catalina). With two exceptions, the Windows machines are all at least 5 years old and all but one is running up-to-date Windows 10. The Linux box is running the current versions of OpenSUSE and various open source applications. None of my mobile devices are the latest hardware, but all are running current versions of their respective OSes.

Generally speaking, we expect software vendors to provide major upgrades to their OSes at least annually and patches frequently (as needed). We also expect legacy support in current software so that our devices continue to work. In fact, most of us are surprised and disappointed when the latest software no longer supports legacy hardware.

Eventually vendors do drop support for older hardware (iPhone 3 anybody?), but it takes generations. Samsung now generally supports a mobile device for 2 generations and other manufacturers are similar.

Cars, however, are a different support paradigm. Each year the manufacturers release new models (though many are just superficial changes from the previous year). And as cars were, at least until recently, purely mechanical, they were an appliance. You buy one and, except for maintenance repairs, it remains in service as-is until it is sold, damaged beyond repair, or becomes too expensive to maintain. Except for mandated safety recalls, the manufacturers don’t regularly update the parts of the vehicle (carburetor 2.1?).

But my car is essentially a computer with wheels. And each successive year has added features and fixed issues from prior years that I can’t get as an update to mine. I’m not going to spend the equivalent of a year’s salary every year to replace my otherwise perfectly good car in order to get software updates. As someone who lives in both worlds, I think this is a horribly outdated practice.

Tesla gets it. They are a technology company that builds cars. They are still pushing out updates to previous models. Yes, they have the same reality distortion halo as Apple did under Jobs, but they also deliver and their customer satisfaction rate demonstrates it.

A short list of issues that have plagued me since day 1:

Radio randomly is on or off when I start the car. This is minor, but confusing. I have no idea why sometimes it decides to start with the radio on when it was off when I stopped the car and other times it starts with it off.

Heat and AC run even when turned off. In general, the environmental controls seem to have a mind of their own and frequently chose to ignore my settings. It has chosen to run the AC when I have the windows open and it’s set to off. It heats the interior to tropical and other times barely at all.

Black screen. The entertainment console will frequently fail to come up when the vehicle is turned on. There are actually several modes of this: Black screen, Bolt Logo, Normal screen frozen. This would be less of an irritation if Chevy hadn’t chosen to implement half of the environmental control buttons as soft buttons on the screen and half as physical buttons.

Backup/Front camera displaying when moving. The display is supposed to switch away from the camera view when the car is moving faster than 5 MPH (?). Sometimes it continues to show the forward camera even while driving. It’s a bit of an amusement park ride and if you are prone to motion sickness, nauseating.

It frequently tells me that it can’t detect the remote, even though it’s in my pocket.
If I get out of the car for a short time then get back in and start it. It will announce to everyone around by honking the horn 3 times. This is really special at 1 AM.

One of the earliest things a Bolt owner learns is how to reboot the entertainment console.

The most frustrating issue is that the car will sometimes get into a loop where I can’t turn it off or put it gear. Attempting to shift shows, “Conditions not right for shifting”. Pushing the start button to turn it off briefly displays a wire frame globe and then the car returns to the same on state. The first time it happened, I was afraid I was going to have to just wait until the battery died then have it towed somewhere. Eventually, it does get itself out of this mode. There is no diagnostic code associated with this event.

As a delivery driver, I likely start and stop my car far more often than the average driver. And as most of these issues seem to happen at start, I’m probably going to experience them at a much higher rate. The environmental controls, however, are insane all of the time.

These are things that I would expect to be solved by a system software update. Alas, I will never get one.

I’ve checked and the latest revision for my year has not changed since 2017 and matches what I have. Subsequent years have much higher revisions, so clearly, development has continued apace. I did actually attempt to load a more recent update and it was rejected. That, of course, is better than bricking a $40,000 car.

If Chevy is not going to make updates, then it would be nice if they would open source the software so that users could fix the bugs that Chevy never will. I see that as no different than a car owner replacing the exhaust system, pistons or engine components for better performance. It’s done at the owner’s risk and understood. There has always been a large aftermarket for those kinds of owners.

It’s the same with computers. You want to replace the graphics card, hard drive or memory? Go for it. You don’t like Windows? Run Linux. Etc.

Research shows that most of us keep our cars for at least 7 years. The era of selling a car as if it were a simple device in a box should end.

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